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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1311

Senator LUDWIG (Queensland) (13:17): The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 seeks to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Let us call it the ABCC; they want to re-name it with a fancy new title but it is the still the same old entity that Labor fought hard to abolish in 2012. This is just one of a number of bills the coalition is seeking to push through the Senate that hark back to the days of Work Choices. This is not a revival we are having here. Those on the other side, though: you would think they were at a revival meeting. They ought to start clapping when these bills come in, because that is exactly what they are doing. These bills seek to re-establish Work Choices by another name.

The ABCC re-established under this bill will have significantly broader powers than its 2005 incarnation. In 2005, the ABCC was created to investigate breaches of and to enforce federal industrial law in the building and construction industry. As bad as that was, back then the extreme powers granted to the ABCC were normalised, let us say, by Work Choices. But in 2015 there is nothing for this bill to hide behind. It cannot be compared and put with all the other awful industrial relations legislation that this government was serving up with Work Choices.

The Abbott government's determination to force a return of the ABCC only shows, quite frankly, that Mr Abbott is capable of misleading again. He said it was 'dead, buried and cremated'. But I think he had his fingers crossed behind his back because he really went on to say, 'We can't guarantee that new bills won't come back.' The Abbott government want to bring back Work Choices. It is in their DNA. But they do not want to tell the Australian people that because they know how negatively that impacts upon the punters out there. So what they are doing is bringing back, slice by slice, industrial relations legislation that is aimed squarely at removing the rights of workers at the workface. Mr Abbott claims that his workplace policies will return the industrial relations pendulum back to the 'sensible centre'. No matter how many times he uses that phrase—let us be honest: he likes repeating himself twice—it does not make it true. It does not make it true one bit. Demonising construction employees and their representative bodies could not be further from sensible. Its powers will be extreme and unnecessary and will compromise civil liberties.

Fair Work Building and Construction, established by Labor, already has sufficient powers to deal with unlawful behaviour in the industry—not to mention the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Federal Police, and state police are well equipped to deal with any crimes committed in the workplace, whether it be by an employer, an employee or a union delegate. No-one condones bad behaviour by unions, employers or employees at the workplace. But Labor asks: why do you need a special power for this industry?

It was Mr Abbott who called for the Cole royal commission in 2001—a royal commission to investigate supposed criminality, fraud and corruption within the building and construction industry. Despite the widespread allegations which I suspect they, like Senator Abetz in here, pump up—a bit of buffery does not hurt—it did not lead to one criminal prosecution and was simply another political stunt at the expense of taxpayers. In response the coalition established the ABCC regardless of it having no role in investigating crime, which is most obviously a matter for the police.

But let's put the politics aside for a moment. There is no denying the damning statistics concerning workplace injuries and deaths that occur under the watch of the ABCC. There were 36 fatalities in the construction industry in 2007-08, twice as many as in 2004-05, immediately before the ABCC commenced operations in late 2005. During the years of the ABCC construction became the industry with the highest number of deaths. I think it is a confronting figure. If you are going to spend any time looking at how you assist the workplace, if you look at how you are going to improve productivity and ensure there would be a safe place of work, this is the statistic you would most closely look at and figure out how to reduce.

Although, as I have said, these figures are confronting, they are not one bit surprising. The biggest issue facing the industry has always been poor workplace safety. In this area where unions are bullied out of workplaces, occupational safety will diminish and lives will be put at risk by companies that put their own financial interests before the wellbeing of their employees. If you do not think that is true—if you think I am stretching the truth here—the statistics do not lie. Unfortunately, it is the case where you will have companies that will cut their corners to achieve an outcome and put workers' lives at risk.

The ABCC will not be the sensible tough cop on the beat that Mr Abbott promises; it will be an extreme and unnecessary workplace bully. What is also concerning is that the ABCC in its previous form was found to be in breach of the international labour organisation conventions, which this country has ratified. This is a government that is, effectively, snubbing its international obligations in favour of its big friends at the big end of town. You could only imagine the destructive effect the new ABCC will have with even more expansive powers than the last. It will just continue the coalition attack on workers' rights and entitlements. This bill will remove the safeguards that currently exist under the Fair Work (Building Industry) Act 2012 on the use of coercive powers, including the requirement of a person to give information, produce documents and attend an interview to answer questions. The ABCC will have powers to compel Australian workers to be subject to backroom interviews, denied legal representation and threatened with imprisonment for refusal to cooperate. These are unfettered powers where workers will not have the right to silence and are denied the right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice. When you listen to them, you hear how excessive, unwarranted and undemocratic they really are.

This is a Work Choices in disguise. It is, quite frankly, a poor disguise. It is a case for this government to go back to the future with the ABCC. This bill will further extend its reach into picketing, offshore construction and the transport and supply of goods to building sites. Not content with just attacking the building industry, it wants to expand its powers into offshore construction and the transport and supply of goods to building sites without any clear evidence that there is an issue that needs to be addressed other than the stupid rhetoric from those opposite that 'There must be a problem if I say it.'

There are no prohibitions that exist on picketing under any previous or existing legislation. This bill creates the new offence of engaging in or organising an unlawful picket, punishable by fines of $34,000 for an individual or $170,000 for a body corporate. To be unlawful, the picket must both restrict access to a work site and be motivated by the purpose of supporting or advancing claims against a building industry participant in respect of the employment of employees. It will also be unlawful if it is motivated by the purpose of advancing industrial objectives of the building association. The new powers aimed at stopping picket reverse the onus of proof in relation to reasons for actions and the ABCC commissioner to the defendant. To escape harsh penalties, the individual or body corporate must prove they were not motivated by an industrial objective.

In fact, when I listen to that, it reminds me of the Joh era in Queensland, where they banned street marches, where they banned people's right to protest against the awful practices that that government was doing. That was in the eighties. This is a government that looks stuck there as well, and I am sure Mr Abbott would think Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a hero. Quite frankly, we are well rid of people like that.

This bill will also extend the ABCC's jurisdiction offshore to as far as Australia's exclusive economic zone. It wants to go fishing, by the look of it, in waters above the continental shelf including resources platforms and ships in the EEZ or those waters and also on Christmas and Cocos islands. It will also encompass the transport or supply of goods to building sites. The operation of this bill will be extended to the transport and supply. Where is the justification for that? There is none.

Building work is also defined more expansively to include construction, restoration, repair and demolition, any operation that is part of or preparatory to such activities and prefabrication of made-to-order components, whether carried on or off site. You wonder whether the poor old handyman in his handyman van is going to be attacked by this legislation as well. It is a disgrace, when you look at it.

This bill is just a first indication that this government will try to push through legislation of this type to extend beyond the construction industry and to other sectors of our economy. It is because they can. At least, they want to. It is not because there is a justification, a problem to be addressed, corrupt practice that needs a foot-stamp on it. It is none of the above. What it wants to do is peddle its poor ideology across these sectors, expand their power and make sure they can put the hobnail boot on workers.

Let us recall that Work Choices extended some of the provisions in the previous act that created the ABCC to the workforce more generally. The FWBC is getting on with the job of investigating and prosecuting unlawful behaviour. As I said, everyone agrees that if there is unlawful behaviour it should be dealt with in the appropriate way, but you should not have a need—and there is no need—for a specialist body to look at a problem that they think exists. It is only politically motivated. There is no other reason.

If you look at the work that the FWBC does, it applies to employers, employees, unions or contractors. It is undertaking and concluding more investigations and getting matters to court faster than its predecessor, the ABCC. The ABCC was not even particularly efficient at its job either, but this is a sensible return to the centre. It is a sensible government—although good government only started earlier this year. What we have is a reintroduction of legislation that stinks. It has no fit purpose and will continue to be inefficient should it pass this place. It will not find the things the coalition thinks it will find.

The performance of the FWBC has been superior to the ABCC, in terms of productivity and industrial disputation. Therefore, why would you dabble with a body that is doing its job—and getting on with its work, and managing pretty hard work in these areas—by creating a politically motivated body that will achieve very little? Not only does this bill repeal the FWBC and re-establish the ABCC but also it enlarges its jurisdictional and industry-sector application. It creates those new coercive powers and reintroduces criminal and civil penalties.

I can understand this type of attack by the Liberals and Nationals in the Senate. It is in their DNA. They see workers and they want to put their hobnail boot on them. That is where they sit in this debate. I accept that. That is their ideological bent, but they should not bring it in here and try to dress it up as a sensible centrepiece of industrial relations for this country. This type of attack is unwarranted and unnecessary and only proves what I have been saying all along—that the coalition is hell-bent on hurting workers.

You only have to look at the magic they did with the Productivity Commission. This is a government that promised stable industrial relations and that we would not return to Work Choices. Instead: 'What we'll do is get the Productivity Commission to have a look into workplace relations, more broadly, and see what they come up with.' Mr Joe Hockey and Senator Abetz sent it off to the Productivity Commission, knowing what they would get back. They got an issues paper back that said: 'We'll have a look at the minimum wage, as to how we can cut it. We'll have a look at how we can reintroduce a 45D and 45E, which will attack workers. We'll have a look at how we can cut penalty rates.' Senator Abetz threw his hands up in the air and said, 'No! We didn't mean that at all. The Productivity Commission's gone off on a frolic of its own.' You sent it on that frolic and you wanted that outcome.

The true reason Senator Abetz threw his hands up in the air on this one is that he was trying to save the skin of his Prime Minister. By the time he got to estimates, he said, 'Everything's still on the table. We're still looking at everything. We'll wait and see.' Once the crisis had passed—for the moment—for Mr Abbott, he had a bit of clean air, so he said, 'We've still got everything on the table. We'll still look at all of these things.' This is a government that will go back to the Productivity Commission report. It will have a look at the outcomes and will attack the minimum wage, will attack penalty rates and will want to reintroduce 45E and 45D secondary boycotts, and it will want to give the power back to the ACCC so that it can punish workers.

This is a government that will not bother seeking a mandate. It will want to do it well before the next election, if it can get away with it. Our job on the crossbench is to ensure that you cannot get away with it and that it does get highlighted. These are atrocious laws. Bringing back the ABCC in a new dressed-up piece of legislation, particularly with the nomenclature of improving productivity, is a falsehood. It should not be countenanced by this Senate. I suspect those on the other side will do a sterling defence of this bill and argue why it is so necessary.

I point those opposite to the areas of transport, supply, offshore oil rigs and the home handyman—the poor old home handyman; he has been wreaking havoc in this area!—and ask them why these people need to have the coercive powers applied to them

I suspect they will not be able to point to any home handyman who has been errant, who has been a problem in the industry, who has troubled a household severely or who has caused a problem. I suspect they will then go to the broad issues again, because at their base they really hate workers and workers' rights. They want to reduce workers' rights and they want to make sure there is a master-and-slave relationship back in place, because it is in their DNA.